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May 2002
Vol. 11, No. 5
pp 21, 22, & 25.
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Workplace Perspectives
John K. Borchardt
Project Management for Teams

Chemists who can get people to “pull together are in demand.

opening art
Art courtesy of Eyewire Collection
“Projects are becoming the new way the world works,” according to Robert Verzuh, author of The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management. Four trends in the past decade have promoted this new workplace reality. First, automation and computerization have reduced the amount of repetitive work, freeing people to work on the development and commercialization of new products and services. Second, growing global competition has hastened the need to reduce development time and costs for new products and services.

Third, in the United States—and increasingly in Europe—downsizing has created a temporary labor force of skilled professionals able and available to work for companies on a project-by-project basis. Related to this is the fourth trend, increased corporate outsourcing. As companies, including chemical and drug companies, outsource various phases of their research, commercialization, and marketing, project management provides an excellent platform to manage these efforts. Although statistics of the growth of project management are hard to come by, it is noteworthy that, since 1990, membership of the Project Management Institute (Newtown Square, PA, www.pmi.org) has increased from 7700 to almost 70,000 in 2000. PMI now has 159 chapters in 45 countries.

The growing use of projects to organize and manage work has increased the demand for professionals, including chemists, engineers, and technicians, who understand the basic principles of project management and can practice them in their work teams and individual efforts. As laboratory chemists, many of us have called our work “projects” but have not truly organized and managed it as such. Yet doing so can improve our productivity and the quality of our results. Verzuh, president of The Versatile Company, a Seattle consulting firm, defines projects as “all the work we do at one time” and notes, “Every project produces an outcome, and every project has a beginning and an end.”

Planning a Project
At the beginning, project managers must clearly link projects to their company’s goals and the goals of the company’s customers. For a project to be successful, the company management, project team members, and customers who will use the results of the project must all agree on the project goals. This is more difficult than it sounds. Many veteran researchers can recount cases of achieving goals but seeing the results of their work fail commercially. The most common reasons for this kind of failure are unclear goals and goals that fail to meet customer requirements. These factors are excellent reasons for either including customers on the project team or communicating effectively with them while the project is in progress to be sure the goals are valid and the means of reaching the goals are cost-effective.

Team members must play an important role in determining project milestones and completion dates. They often have a better idea than the project manager of how long it will take to achieve milestones. Business consultant Edward Ziv (Flash Creative Management, Hackensack, NJ) notes that team members are likely to be more committed to meeting deadlines when they helped set them.

Having reached agreement on project goals, the project manager and team must develop a clear plan to achieve those goals. The plan establishes responsibilities for the various phases of the work and sets milestones that serve as deadlines and demonstrations of progress. Payments to contracting firms are usually dependent on them meeting milestones—an incentive to work efficiently and effectively. By establishing clear responsibilities, each project participant knows what he or she is responsible for and when.

A good plan also provides the framework for estimating the resources necessary to accomplish each milestone. This aids the project manager in determining if his or her organization has the technical and financial resources necessary to achieve project goals. Insufficient technical expertise helps determine if phases of the work need to be outsourced. Insufficient financial resources can result in the organization borrowing funds to support the project or bringing in outside participants who financially contribute to the project. It can also mean the organization decides not to pursue the project.

Key Questions
The project manager and the project team have organized the project well when they can provide clear answers to the following questions:

  • What are the desired results?
  • What are the goals that will achieve these results?
  • How will we know when we have accomplished these goals? Results and goals must be clearly measurable to determine when they have been met.
  • What resources in people, time, equipment, and money are needed? Does the team have an adequate amount of each resource?
  • What is the balance between the constraints of project cost, time needed, and the resulting product or process features and costs?

“Murphy’s law does apply to your project,” Ziv advises. He counsels project managers to determine the most likely points at which something could go wrong and then prepare contingency plans should the anticipated problems arise.

The project manager must ensure that team members, sponsoring organizations providing funding, and the individuals and organizations using the project results all understand the answers to the above questions and what can be accomplished given the project staffing, budget, and timetable. Should any of these factors change, all stakeholders must agree to adapt the project as needed.

This consensus process requires the project manager to practice effective oral and written communication. Initially, projects must not be oversold. Customers who would have been delighted with a 20% improvement will be disappointed if they had been promised a 50% improvement. Promising achievement of an unrealistic goal will damage the project manager’s credibility with team members and sponsors and reduce their commitment to the project.

Should a project goal be promised in good faith but results later indicate that the goal is unrealistic, the project manager must inform the stakeholders promptly. This will reduce the negative consequences and also let stakeholders know if their investment in the project still makes sense.

In the previous example, one or more stakeholders may decide that they are not willing to continue their investment for a 20% improvement. The remaining stakeholders are left to decide whether or not to pursue the project on their own with more modest goals, recruit new project stakeholders to pursue more modest project goals, or make the added investments necessary to achieve the original project goals.

Staffing and Teamwork
Many projects are beyond the capability of any one contributor. The time required to complete a project often means that several people must work on it together to meet the deadline. So, the project manager must assemble a project team. Together, the team members must have the skills necessary to accomplish the project goals. They must also have the needed resources, such as time, instruments, and technical support. Team members must be aware of each other’s roles and the resources each brings to the project. For each team member to achieve project milestones, all must agree on project goals and coordinate their efforts to meet project milestones.

Effective and constant communication is critical to keep projects on track. It also keeps team members apprised of others’ progress and of changes that can affect the project. The means of communication is less important than the requirement that it be effective. For example, geographic distance between team members can reduce or eliminate face-to-face meetings. In this case, videoconferencing or teleconferencing can be used for communicating. For routine updates and sharing data, e-mail is usually the best method.

Management Support
Project managers often lack the authority to make all of the decisions on a project; they must rely on the support of high-ranking project team members. The project manager must be able to sell the project rationale, goals, and structure to budget authorities that supply funding. They must also sell the project to research department managers who can supply the needed people and facilities and to the researchers who will develop the technology. It is critical that they gain the support of the plant personnel who will bring research and pilot results to commercial scale and of sales and business managers who will use the project results. The project manager often participates in selling the project rationale, goals, and structure to customer participants who will purchase the products or license the processes resulting from the project.

A project road map or timeline with identified milestones will help everyone to gauge progress toward the final goal. Team members will feel more committed if they can meet intermediate, short-term goals that are clearly related to the project’s overall success. Promptly inform team members and sponsors when the team achieves a milestone—and celebrate the major ones.

Rick M. Gross, corporate vice president and director of R&D for Dow Chemical Co. (Midland, MI), has observed, “Technical innovation is the fuel for corporate growth and longevity. Companies that innovate at rapid rates will be well-positioned to lead in the 21st century. For these companies to achieve this high rate of innovation it will take a well-balanced team aligned with the business strategy and focused on the external marketplace.” Effective project management helps assure this alignment and focus.

Further Reading
Esque, T. J. No Surprises Project Management: A Proven Early Warning System for Staying on Track; Act Publications: Nottingham, U.K., 1999.
Lewis, J. P. The Project Manager’s Desk Reference: A Comprehensive Guide to Project Planning, Scheduling, Evaluation, and Systems; McGraw-Hill: New York, 1999.
Verzuh, E. The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management; Wiley & Sons: New York, 1999.

John K. Borchardt is a research chemist who has published more than 100 technical papers and has been awarded 30 U.S. patents. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office, 1155 16th St N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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